Religious Music

Written by Serena Berger
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Religious music differs greatly between faiths and among eras. In some cases, the music of an entire culture or nation has its roots in liturgical music, while in others sacred and secular music have developed on separate paths. Classical music is most typically associated with religion, but traditional music and popular music both have a place in the sphere of religious music as well.

In many nations, religious music was the first music; or, at least, the first music somehow transcribed for posterity. Western music history classes always begin with Gregorian chant, the music written by monks vocalizing on sacred texts. Obviously people made music before this, some of which celebrated faith and some of which surely did not; yet the foundation of how we perceive harmony, melody, rhythm, and notation in Western music comes from religious music.

Many other cultures, including civilizations from Africa, the Middle East, and Asia used music in rituals before the modern-day religions most closely identified with those regions were founded. Some of that music was adapted into religious music, and some continued to thrive separately as new forms of religious music were developed. In countries like Armenia, sacred vocal music sounds very similar to that of European Christian traditions, while nearby in Iran, sacred music takes the myriad forms of Ashuraei music, prayer music, Tazieh (or Passion Play), and mystical or convent music-all of which are quite distinct from the music of any other culture.

Religious Music in Popular Culture

Religious music has found its way into popular culture in unexpected ways. It may be more obvious in nations where a governmentally proscribed code determines what music may be released, so even pop stars must conform to a set of religious beliefs; but in the Western world, rock and pop groups with religious messages are packing stadiums as well as their counterparts with parental advisories. While they may not be making religious music like Handel's Messiah, contemporary popular artists all over the world are making statements about their faith and using their power as cultural icons to share their beliefs.


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